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Documents detail gov't effort to play down 1940s spy scandal

A draft announcement about the Sorge Incident is seen in this picture taken at the National Diet Library in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. A red stamp saying "Top Secret" as well as deletions and changes of the text are visible on the paper. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Newly found documents about the government's intervention into the media reporting of the "Sorge Incident" in the 1940s show in detail the intensity of relevant bureaucrats' efforts to minimize the fallout from the international espionage case that the home affairs ministry made public on May 16, 1942.

Former Asahi Shimbun reporter Hotsumi Ozaki, who advised the Konoe administration. (Mainichi)

"Please delete line 6 of Page 1 of justice authorities' comment," said a memo dated May 14, 1943, describing the foreign ministry's "unofficial opinion" regarding a draft of the home ministry announcement of the case. "Please delete item 5 on Page 2," it continued. The memo is among the documents left by Justice Ministry bureaucrat Taizo Ota.

Drafts of the home ministry announcement, bearing stamps saying "top secret" and "strictly confidential," bear handwritten or typed corrections or redactions in several places reflecting the opinions of relevant government offices. These detailed changes indicate bureaucrats involved in the process paid utmost attention to getting the text right.

Richard Sorge, the Soviet spy arrested in the incident, established a spy network that extended into the core of Japan's power structure with the help of Japanese collaborators such as Hotsumi Ozaki, a China specialist and adviser to then Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe. The information Sorge collected was highly important and reliable.

In 1941, Sorge reported that Germany, then an ally of Japan, was preparing to attack the Soviet Union, but then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ignored the warning. German troops launched Operation Barbarossa to invade the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

As for Japan's own war plans, Tokyo had two options: going north to attack the Soviets or going south, and chose the latter in the end. Sorge obtained information from people linked to embassies as well as from Ozaki that the Imperial Japanese forces were not going north, and relayed the intelligence to Moscow. This helped Soviet war planners to deploy forces in the Far East region facing Japan to the western front to stop the Germans.

As Japanese bureaucrats discussed ways to announce this espionage case, which shook the Japanese government to its core, a Foreign Ministry official proposed deletions in the home affairs ministry' draft announcement, perhaps to evade its responsibility for having critical state information stolen.

Those portions include a sentence expressing "horror" about the leak of secret information as a result of the clandestine activities of the spy ring. The bureaucrat also asked for deletion of a sentence that said, "Sorge and Ozaki were committed in not only espionage but also maneuvers supporting the leftists." The home affairs ministry concurred with Foreign Ministry requests.

Moreover, home affairs officials deleted from the announcement a passage referring to "unprecedented, horrific arrests" of the spies. They also changed "approaching the top echelons of politics and other figures" to "approaching higher levels of politics and other figures."

These edits underscore attempts by relevant government ministries to minimize the impact of the incident to evade responsibility and protect their organizations.

Cameras and other equipment used in the Sorge Incident (Mainichi)

Professor emeritus Naoki Ota of Tokai University pointed out that the bureaucrats apparently tried to hide the importance of the case from public scrutiny, citing the sensitivity of the issue when the Pacific War was underway. "You can also see some moves toward strengthening pressure on leftist ideologies," said Ota.

The Taizo Ota documents include first-hand records other than those about the Sorge Incident. Professor Tetsuro Kato, who wrote a book on the spy case, said that they are "first-class papers requiring joint investigation, and are a treasure trove for future studies by young researchers."

(Japanese original by Hideyuki Tanabe, Cultural News Department)

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